A couple of months ago, before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and began spewing tens of millions of gallons of raw crude into the Gulf of Mexico, Dave Rauschkolb was just some guy with an improbable—some might even call it loopy—dream. A surfer and the owner of three restaurants in Seaside, Florida, Rauschkolb had almost single-handedly organized 10,000 people to gather on 90 Florida beaches and join hands one Saturday in February to protest an offshore-oil-drilling bill that was making its way through the State Legislature. He’d called the event “Hands Across the Sand.” In April, after President Obama announced that he would open up vast new expanses of America’s seawaters to offshore drilling, Rauschkolb heard from a woman in Virginia and a man in New Jersey who wanted to hold similar events on their beaches. He offered to help. Then the BP oil spill happened, and Rauschkolb had an idea. What if he took “Hands Across the Sand” national? He envisioned throngs of Americans joining hands on beaches all over the United States and, before long, he wasn’t the only one dreaming big.
When the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred on April 20, the American environmental movement was already suffering perhaps the lowest morale of its 40-year existence. What had become environmentalists’ primary mission—to convince the world to do something about climate change—was, after a few hopeful years, rapidly slipping away from them. Climate activists were being outmaneuvered by the highly superior political-media operation of their fossil-fuel-industry-funded opponents. The chances of enacting any meaningful climate legislation in the United States—an essential precursor to getting the rest of the world to act—were dropping precipitously. And now, from 50 miles off the Louisiana coast and nearly a mile under the Gulf of Mexico, came this terrible, visceral image of self-inflicted environmental destruction caused by our addiction to oil. “Those of us who have worked on global warming for decades just can’t believe that here we are in a society that really has made almost no change based on the warnings that have come out,” John Passacantando, the former executive director of Greenpeace USA, says. “The deep feelings of hurt and failure triggered by the spill are just overwhelming.”
And yet any environmental activist who has been in the game long enough knows the power of a good catastrophe. “We really worry about the spill itself, but in the past it seems to have taken horrific events like this to wake people up,” says Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and founder of the climate-change group 350.org. In 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill and the burning Cuyahoga River helped give birth to the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air Act; in 1979, the Three Mile Island accident gave a dramatic boost to the anti-nuclear movement. “One hopes that what’s happening in the gulf will have some of the same kind of effect,” McKibben says. “This has the potential to be a galvanizing moment for the climate movement.” The Obama administration appears to have reached a similar conclusion. After spending his first eighteen months in the White House refusing to aggressively push for meaningful climate and energy legislation—reportedly at the behest of Rahm Emanuel, who deemed the issue a political loser—Obama, seeking to capitalize on the spill, has now apparently devised a plan that he hopes could get a bill on his desk before the end of the year.
Granted, it takes a couple of steps of logic to get from Deepwater to the warming of the planet—to explain how even if the oil now spewing into the gulf had ended up in our gas tanks, it would have done environmental damage. But given how unsuccessfully the environmental movement has pressed the rational case for climate-change action, some activists are wondering whether rational, dispassionate thinking is overrated. Over the last few months, they have begun to subtly (and not so subtly) shift their messaging away from scientific, or even explicitly environmental, arguments and toward more direct, emotional, and, frankly, manipulative appeals. “The problem with the environmental movement is not that it hasn’t been polite enough, it’s that it’s been too polite,” says Passacantando. “Henry David Thoreau was once asked if he regretted anything, and he said, ‘If I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior.’ I think that’s what we might take from the Deepwater-well blowout and the failure to pass meaningful climate-change legislation.”
So while the live-streaming underwater oil cam and the photos of oil-slickened pelicans are fresh on everyone’s mind, activists have begun working them to their advantage. When they heard of Rauschkolb’s highly visible (and relatively easy to engage) Hands Across the Sand stunt, the Sierra Club delivered about 25 of its top field staffers to organize beaches in eighteen states and Greenpeace sent five employees and 500 of its top volunteer activists. McKibben’s group 350.org made sure that members of Congress were invited to events at beaches in their districts. Friends of the Earth’s media team taught local organizers how to write press releases and deal with reporters. All told, more than a dozen national environmental groups, as well as liberal groups like MoveOn, signed on as sponsors and activated their massive e-mail lists.